Retro Review: “Knight Rider” (NES, 80s August Special)

Welcome back to 80s August, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of the greatest decade since orange met chicken.

Today we’re going to do a full detail on Knight Rider, the 1988 Nintendo (NES) game developed by Pack-In-Video Co. and published by Acclaim.

And at the mention of the name “Acclaim”, I know that there are eyes rolling and stomachs churning. Does Knight Rider, like so many other Acclaim games, fall victim to the company’s poor quality standards?

It’s the ‘Hoff!

“Hello, Michael”

Based on the hit television show by the same name, Knight Rider puts the player (that’s YOU, ya’ lucky devil) in the driver’s seat of the Knight Industries Two Thousand (also known as “K.I.T.T.” if you buy it a drink first), a black, 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am outfitted with an advanced artificial intelligence…

…and guns.

Knight Rider is a driving action game where you must use your high-tech hot rod to race across 16 stages in pursuit of criminals and terrorists. The vehicle can not only fire machine guns at enemies, but it can speed up to nearly 200 mph and can even “jump” over approaching obstacles. Believe it or not, the jumping works far better than you might expect, and it’s pretty fun.

“Here in my car, I feel safest of all…”

But which cars are the ones with terrorist? The red ones, of course! All red vehicles, whether car, truck, helicopter, or plane, are fair game to blow to smithereens, the latter two requiring that you jump to shoot them down. Yellow terrorist vehicles will occasionally pop up too, and these will drop a power up if you destroy them. While your machine gun is pretty effective in knocking out these bastards, you can collect limited use lasers and missiles which do quite a bit more damage, although the missiles are a bit tough to aim and are better left saved for boss battles.

Pro tip! If you split lanes and ride the lines, you will be better positioned to shoot enemy vehicles without them being able to hit you.

The blue vehicles, however, are civilian, and if you accidentally destroy a civilian vehicle, it will cost you precious time on the clock. This sometimes makes firing your weapons more nerve-racking than it should be. Just a few stages into the game, if you destroy a single blue car, you’re almost guaranteed to not complete the stage in time.

Make no mistake, time is certainly your greatest enemy in Knight Rider. Sure, the enemies can deplete your shields and you can also run out of gas, and all of this is challenge enough, but I found the aggressive damn time limit to be overkill.

Loving that desert scenery

“A lone crusader in a dangerous world…”

The environment in each stage changes as you trek across the United States, with each major city featuring its own unique skyline (The Space Needle in Seattle, the St. Louis arch, etc.). It looks as though a lot of thought was put into designing the backgrounds, with several standouts. Las Vegas looks especially cool as the city lights rise slowly over the nighttime horizon as you approach. New York, on the other hand, looks like a post-apocalyptic hellscape, and on the road to Houston, you spend most of the level dodging barrels – not cars – which are just lying around in the middle of the highway. It’s pretty stupid.

New York looks about right, eh?

Other than Houston, most of the stages play out the same way, with the player speeding along, avoiding traffic, shooting the bad guys, and reaching the boss fight before time expires. Even the music, while catchy, doesn’t change between stages. The boss fights come in the form of larger enemy vehicles (i.e. semi trucks and attack helicopters). They’re pretty damn quick, so you’ll need to keep moving or they’ll blow you straight to hell. They definitely take quite a few hits to take down, but be patient and focus on surviving and get your hits in where you can.

Each of the action stages is introduced by characters from the show. Devon gives you the mission, while Bonnie outfits K.I.T.T. with your choice of gas, shields, engine, missile and laser upgrades. The dialogue in these scenes rolls out too slowly for my tastes, though you can choose to skip it entirely. Maybe it was expected that kids read slower, eh? Stoopid kidz.

Bonnie Barstow’s Pontiac Emporium

Bumps in the road

There are a couple of other technical issues worth mentioning, the first being that there is a bit of flicker on the screen when the action heats up, but I never noticed any slowdown. There’s also a persistent, glitchy line on the screen, which I’ve noticed on my copy of the game as well as others. It’s hard to know whether this is a universal flaw, of course.

Like its 8-bit contemporaries, Knight Rider for the NES was designed to be a tough game, but the difficulty presented by the enemies, bosses, and limited gas supply was more than enough to keep even the most adept gamer challenged. Sure, there had to be a consequence for destroying the civilian cars, and a time penalty makes sense in that regard, but I still don’t think that the time limit had to be as aggressive as it was.

Attack helicopter bosses are a bitch

Fortunately, there is a password save every four stages which makes the full experience a bit more approachable, and there’s also an easy-to-remember level select code (hold B while resetting the console), which lets you experience every stage, even if you aren’t skilled enough to complete them. There’s even a “drive mode”, which will help you with the basics if you need to practice without being shot at.

“One man can make a difference, Michael”

Knight Rider was among the first few games we had on our NES, so I must admit that I still have a soft spot for it in my balls heart. I won’t go quite as far as say that it is on the verge of being a classic, but it has the fundamentals of a really good driving action game, and jumping around the roads remains really fun still to this day. Sure, the full 16 stages are almost certainly more difficult than most modern gamers would choose to overcome, but if you pop Knight Rider into your NES and make it a point to finish the first 4-5 stages and call it a day, I feel pretty confident in saying that you’re going to have a good time.

Not to shabby for a licensed NES game, and one published by Acclaim, at that! (A mega crap-ton better than Airwolf, anyway)

And it doesn’t suck!

Thanks for reading!

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